Appraisal News and Business Tips

How accurate is the reported square footage from the tax records in your primary service area?

How accurate is the reported square footage from the tax records in your primary service area?
3/10/14 poll – www.appraisalport.com
Poll Results
– Very accurate for most homes 869 votes – 16%
– Mostly accurate (about 75% of the time) 2495 votes – 55%
– Hit and miss (about 50% of the time). 1470 votes – 27%
– Not reliable (accurate less than 25% of the time). 475 votes – 9%
– The tax records do not usually show the square footage in my area. 127 votes – 2%
Total votes = 5,346
My comment: AMCs seem to be assuming that tax records are more reliable than appraisers’ measurements. WRONG!! I started appraising at an assessor’s office in 1975. We were no more accurate than any other appraisers and never thought that our square footages were exact.
I used to do a lot of relocation appraisals where 2 or 3 appraisers were hired to appraise the same property. Very, very seldom did the appraisers have the same square footage.
A few years ago, a local real estate agent asked me about an appraisal where the sketch did not match the house. Tax records sq.ft. was way off. The appraiser had “fudged” the dimensions to match public records.
Do many appraisers do this to avoid AMC hassles or they were taught to do this by their supervisors?
I have always looked at tax records sq.ft. as a cross check, but never assumed it was more accurate than my measured sq.ft. In some neighborhoods and cities they are accurate and are very unreliable in other areas as they often are not correct.

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20 Comments
  1. If it is a 2 story house – tax records anywhere are usually way off – small 1 story houses – they are usually right on.

  2. In Cook County Illinois, about 60% of the Assessor’s records are in error.

  3. I have been told by at least three of my Realtor associates that staff appraisers from AMC’s are fudging their sq.ft. measurements to match tax records. They have verified this by homeowners who were aware, and had verified by an industry professional, that the sq.ft. in tax records was wrong. They have also mentioned how rushed the appraiser seemed. Based on the quotas I’ve heard that these appraisers must keep up per week, any sq.ft. that differs from what’s in the tax records, means that the comps they pulled are all wrong, and they’re going to have to pull new comps and start over. The AMC turn time does not allow for mistakes and these appraisers run the risk of loosing their jobs if they don’t maintain the quotas.

  4. Many small appraisal districts (tax assessors for you non-Texans) simply don’t have the funding for adequate staff. The result is poor records of improvements. Several in central Texas don’t even know the age of the improvements, much less how big they are. Those that do have improvement sketches are usually inaccurate, since they tend to “square” the improvements in order to say time. Bay windows? Half-stories? Not a chance. Try explaining that to some AMC weenie in (gasp) New England or California. Absolutely no clue about small, rural government offices.

    • John that is true, but $55 per square foot for a brand new reaitl development is still ridicoulously low even with market conditions adjustments. Considering we the tax payers are carrying this burden, the appraisals should be public information. I still don’t believe the concluded value is reasonable at first glance. Market adjustments do not fully explain an 80% difference between cost and current value. This is completely fishy and Kansas City is getting screwed.

  5. Several years ago we hired a commercial appraisal trainee who had about 6 months experience as Res trainee. She had been “trained” to fudge the dimensions of the structure to make it match the public record data. I couldn’t believe it! She did not last long at our shop.

    I’m also amazed that many appraisers don’t account for the “hole in the second story floor” for the stairwell – they just double the ground floor number!

    • @Wayne,

      Please join the effort to diminish the influence that secondary mortgage lending, form work and AMCs are having on a large segment of our profession. And the haphazard mentoring and qulaification programs our profession has adopted. While you are not responsible for anything other than the work that is produced under your banner the majority of work that is being done by our profession is infected by exactly the kinds of shortcomings you found.

      While appraisers are used to talking about these sorts of violations of best practices, clients and intended users are not. They must be educated and possibly restrained.

      If the demand for shortcut appraisal went away, so would many of the problems. Let’s get it done!

    • Concerning the “hole in the second story” – I was taught to consider the available area under the stairwell. A typical 4 x 12 stairwell opening will usually have 4 x 8 of heated storage or the powder room or the pantry underneath it, therefore it is only appropriate to subtract 16 square feet, which has minimal effect on 2000 sf of GLA.

  6. When I started appraising in 1986, if my calculated area was within 10% of the county data, I rechecked my measurements. The assessor data might be high or low, but it seldom matched. Assessor data is more accurate now, but is always rounded to the next 10 foot increment.

    Whenever possible, I download the subject ‘as built’ floor plan from the assessor before I inspect. I take my own measurements, either with a 100 ft tape or a laser, measuring to the nearest 10th of a foot. Having the assessor sketch, I can see where a porch got enclosed and heated, or a dining room was expanded outside the foundation.

    Another problem is with remodeled or expanded homes. The city building departments that issue the permits often do not notify the county assessor of the changes, and on their quadrennial reinspections, the assessor appraisers seldom get inside. Even in the unincorporated areas, the county building authority seldom speaks to the assessor.

    If the comp listing shows “appraisal” as the source for GLA, I will use that figure; otherwise I go with what shows in the county records. As one of my mentors told me years ago, with all of the variables in the data we use, we really should be providing a range of value with a 10% spread, but our clients insist on a value point.

  7. To date, No lender or AMC has tried to tell me that my subject measurements were wrong, and this is after 28 years of using a tape measurer and actually walking around the exterior and measuring each wall. The real question comes up in the above grade area of the comparables. Most of the assessment data in my area is reliable, although frequently the “daylight” (that would be walk-up for you UAD fans) level is included by the assessor. One can easily consult either the assessment sketch or the calculations to split out the above grade living area from the finished area in these instances. However, any good appraiser will still use their best judgment when viewing the comparable and contrasting it to what the assessor might have. There are instances where a second floor has been omitted or under-counted as a 1.5 or 1.25 story home. Bottom line here is to do your work correctly, make notes in your work file, and take the time do verify your data

    • Great advice, Kevin! My fahetr’s a home appraiser in south Florida and I always hear his complaints about real estate agents or mortgage brokers not fully cooperating. If they would just provide as much of this info as possible up front, like you suggest, he would probably be a little less stressed. Not to mention, they’d be able to close their sales quicker. To me it just seems like some common professional courtesy. Liz Wagner

  8. Most of these Survey’s from Appraisalport don’t ask the right questions. As far as this survey is concerned, trust only what “YOU” can see or touch. There’s no substitution for hands-on evaluation.

  9. Tax records are only a guide. On the comps, I wonder how far off from the actual GLA furnished by Tax Records might be from the real number. Bobby Dalton Fort Worth, Tx

    • Excellent question and completely appropriate for an appraiser, but within the appropriate scope of work how can you possibly verify what the assessor says without access to the comps or another more reliable source of data?

  10. Consistency of comparison, good judgement, well explained extraordinary assumptions/transparency are key to accurate results. Correcting the subject does not correct the comparables, which can skew the results if appropriate measures are not taken. Can get tricky.

    • I agree, be consistent, make your data as accurate as possible and use extraordinary assumptions when necessary, but don’t get sucked into believing your opinions can ever be accurate.

      No such thing as an accurate opinion.

  11. My measured GLA takes precedence over any other representation of GLA. In Northern VA, tax record GLA accuracy depends on the county but is generally 50/50. If you appraise a 3-level townhouse with a built-in garage where the 1st level is totally (front to rear) above grade, you will find that tax records report the 1st level as a “basement” and not include the finished portion in the total GLA! Bottom line, you should only certify what you know is accurate and can support/defend.

  12. Reply to Amc. I measured the subject. Assessor did not have access or used plans submitted to building department that were later changed during construction Comp: MLS and agent often use SF estimate obtained by owner but unless there was an addition that the county is unaware of, that estimate is typically wrong I go with public records.

  13. Sometimes the assessor’s GLA matches mine…I really don’t care…I measure the home like I was taught. I have the following statement in every report; “Subject GLA was determined by actual tape measurement by the appraiser at the time of inspection and may or may not agree with the assessor’s records; the appraiser is not privy to the measuring techniques of the assessor. The assessor may have very different parameters with regard to allowable rooms to include in their GLA.” Works every time.

  14. GLA is an important item that clearly impacts value and as many of you know I couldn’t care less what AMCs think.

    Residential appraisers most often have access to a subject property and can complete their own measurements of that property, however when it comes to the comps it is not often the case that the appraiser can complete his/her own measurements of GLA or indeed even verify the information in the assessor’s record since most often the MLS uses the assessor measurements in the listings it publishes.

    I amaze myself because I agree with what the AMCs think about the assessor’s record of GLA. Appraisers most often use the assessor’s record of comp GLA under the assumption (actually extraordinary assumption since value hangs in the balance) that the record is accurate. Appraisers arrive at value in part and importantly by adjusting the comp GLA to the subject.

    So tell me, how can one reasonably defend the position that the assessor’s record is unreliable for the subject, but reliable for the comps? Inconsistent to say the least.

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